Duke in Silicon Valley 3.0: Week 1 Recap

By Grant Kelly

Hello! Greetings from Silicon Valley!
The first five days of our thirty-two day program have been extremely exciting. Between all of the class sessions, team building exercises, and site visits, we have been kept very busy, to say the least. In the last five days we’ve zip-lined through some scraggly trees and walked across some tightropes as part of a team building exercise, commuted across the valley in several exhilarating buses, visited and explored the campus at Stanford University in Palo Alto, attended our first three classes, where our preparation skills where challenged by our professor, Matt Christensen, listened to two wonderful guest speakers, Varish Goyal, and Shea Tate-Di Donna, and traveled to Apple’s famous campus, where we met with Apple senior vice president, Eddy Cue. We have done far too much in the last four days to fit in a single blog post, so I will focus on the highlights of the trip so far.

The program started out strong with a team building exercise on Tuesday, organized around a ropes course, which was apparently in viewing distance of the Golden Gate Bridge (everything was obscured by the fog), due to the fact that the course was located in the Golden Gate Recreation Area. With the goal of initiating team bonding, the day was filled with lots of problem solving activities, with an emphasis on climbing, balancing, and holding onto ropes for dear life. One notable activity was titled “double trouble”, where pairs of students would gracefully wobble across a wire that was suspended almost 20 feet in the air, to the general amazement of their audience of peers, who would stand mesmerized, waiting in anticipation as the pair would attempt to climb over and/or around one another, often with minimal success. Luckily for us, fashionable harnesses were a required part of this challenge. The activities forced us to quickly become comfortable with each other, and set the tone for the level of teamwork and collaboration we were to be expected of for the duration of the program.

While feet, legs, shoes, and trains are sometimes utilized, the primary transportation tool employed by the Duke in Silicon Valley program is the humble bus, which arrives at every morning at a time no later than 8:15 am, taking us from our Mountain View apartment complex to Stanford’s Palo Alto campus, a riveting 45 minute journey where we race the Cal Train, which runs parallel to our route. Students often use this time to review the assigned case studies in order to be extra prepared before class.

Unexpectedly, one of my favorite things we do on the program is go to class. Our professor, Matt Christensen, has adapted a Harvard Business School course, created by his father, for our program. He begins each class by randomly selecting one lucky student, who is tasked with summarizing one of the case studies assigned for reading the night before. The cases, which are selected to emphasize overarching concepts taught in the course, cover a remarkably wide variety of topics, with ultrasound equipment, steel production, electronic parts distribution, low fat butter alternatives, and plastic molding serving as just a few examples. As class progresses, more and more of us participate, with class usually ending in an electrifying debate.

Sometimes, we get to augment the usual class experience with a guest speaker. Our first guest speaker was Duke alumni Shea Tate-Di Donna, Founder and CEO of Zana, a virtual incubator for aspiring entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. In the same way Levis provided the tools early California miners needed to do their jobs during the original gold rush, Zana aspires to provide entrepreneurs with the resources they need in order to learn how to effectively build a new business. The company provides video lectures from successful professionals from various parts of the technology industry, creating a valuable level of insight unique to the service. It was tremendously inspiring to hear the story of her career path, and recognize the concepts of growth and management in her company that we have been learning about in class.

Our second speaker was Varish Goyal, president of Vintners Distributors Inc., a company which owns over 100 California gas stations and convenient stores. One of the most exciting projects at Vinters Distributors is their LOOP store. With slick designs, improved store layouts, and enough fresh food to rival a miniature Whole Foods, this was not your average gas station convenient store. After his talk, we actually were able to hop on one of our trusty busses and visit two of his LOOP stores. I was struck by the level of detail behind every element in the store. For example, long shelves were eliminated in favor of smaller kiosks in order to increase the number of end caps (the part of the shelf a consumer sees before entering an isle) in the stores in order to increase potential sales. It was also encouraging to see how connected Varish was with each and every one of his stores. When we arrived at our first LOOP location of the day, the cashier at the store recognized Varish right away, and he did not need to present any form of identification before showing us around his store. It was unbelievably cool to have such an interactive learning experience with an industry expert.

Our first sight visit was our trip to Apple. Despite some last minute cancellations, we arrived at a lesser known portion of the Apple campus and were quickly ushered into a large conference room, whose stylish chairs and table looked like they would have been right at home one of the nearby Apple stores. To our surprise, we were greeted by the administrative assistant of Eddy Cue, who informed us that Eddy would be in right away. Mr. Cue, who is SVP of Apple’s internet software and services, was incredibly generous with his time, allowing us to ask him questions for almost two hours. Overall, it was a sensational experience, and provided a lot of insight into how a such a large and iconic company like Apple is run.

To finish up the week, a smaller subset of the Duke in Silicon Valley group visited the city of San Francisco for the Fourth of July holiday, an outing generously planned at a moment’s notice by our fearless program leader, Professor Grace Kim. The day was filled with lots of fun and sightseeing, where the group traveled by foot from the Cal train station up and down monstrous hills, through China town, past Lombard Street, all the way to famous piers to watch the fireworks. Along the way, we stopped to take plenty of pictures, and grab lots of food, including some apple fritters and bubble tea. It was a great chance to take a break from all of our school work and explore one of America’s great cities as tourists. And despite the fact that San Francisco might not be the best location for fireworks (all of the fireworks exploded into the fog over the bay), spending the holiday in the city was a terrific experience.

Overall, the first week has been jam packed with a ridiculous number of events and activities, and while it has all been a lot of fun, we have been kept busy with all the work, learning a lot along the way. It is very uplifting to see how generous everyone has been with their time and mentorship, and has only made us more excited for the weeks to come.

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